By Tim Montgomerie
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There are lots of potent messages from the Prime Minister’s big speech on welfare today. I suspect they'll resonate with a clear majority of the British people:
- Mr Cameron will say that work is the best welfare and that a job is “the only thing that really beats poverty”;
- Taking a page out of the Centre for Social Justice's book and its focus on “pathways out of poverty” he will emphasise “debt, family break-down, educational failure and addiction” as causes of hardship;
- He will talk of a “welfare gap” where people who grow up in a household that is dependent upon benefits assume that the state will also provide them with their own home and income – on the other side of the gap are people who save and go without before they have a home of their own or bring a child into the world;
- Building on Iain Duncan Smith's ambition to redefine the child poverty goal he will say that “compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques – it’s in the chances you give people: the chance to get a job, to get on, to get that sense of achievement that only comes from doing a hard day’s work for a proper day’s pay”;
- He will say that the state must always provide a home to young people under 25 without any other options – “like those leaving foster care, or those with a terrible, destructive home life” – but not to those who simply want more independence;
- People on benefits should no longer be excused from having basic literacy and numeracy skills;
- “After a certain period on benefits, everyone who was physically able,” the PM will say, might “be expected to do some form of full-time work helping the community, like tidying up the local park”.
He hasn’t reached conclusions on many of these issues but he makes it clear that his preferred direction of travel is towards a more demanding, more conditional and a more time-limited welfare system – especially for the young and physically able. Some of this might be achievable during this parliament, in collaboration with the Liberal Democrats but Cameron will also make it clear that much will only be possible if the Conservatives can win the next election and govern on their own. “I am exploring these issues,” he will say, “not just as leader of a coalition but as a leader of the Conservative Party who is looking ahead to the programme we will set out to the country at the next election.”
He also uses the speech to resolve – perhaps once-and-for-all-in-this-parliament – the question of special benefits for the elderly, like the Winter Fuel Allowance. “Two years ago I made a promise to the elderly of this country,” he will say, “and I am keeping it”. That's that then.
The headlines in the centre right press are friendly this morning but the centre left newspapers are vicious. "Return of the nasty party," declares The Independent while The Guardian describes the "Tory plan to slash benefits". And let's not imagine that this is just about the left-leaning newspapers. On Sky News yesterday the presenter Andrew Wilson asked political correspondent Peter Spencer if the Conservative Party was reverting to type. Was, he asked, the sheep’s clothing being finally abandoned to reveal the Tory wolf beneath? Peter Spencer’s reply focused on Cameron’s need to reassure “muscular” backbenchers that he was a real Tory.
My hope and belief is that the PM is emphasising work because he genuinely believes that a job is the best route out of poverty for every person in Britain. If he builds on that message and also Michael Gove’s education agenda he hits two of the three big themes that I’ve long argued should be the Conservative view of the big society. Labour wants to build the good society on an ever bigger welfare state. Our vision of the good society depends upon committed parents, inspirational educators and, of course, job creators. The Left will relentlessly hit us for being cutters. Will we relentlessly set out our alternative view of how to beat poverty? If we don't we will be in trouble.
If battle one involves encouraging the media to see this agenda as about redefining society’s approach to poverty rather than about slashing benefits/ playing to the Tory Right then the second battle is to convince Mr Wilson et al that in many areas we are still gentle as lambs in key areas of social policy. While society needs to be much more demanding of the physically able we still have a compassionate agenda for those who really deserve it. This includes five key pledges that I would include on one side of compassion pledge card that should be issued to all Tory MPs and candidates…
- An NHS that remains free at the point of delivery;
- Maximum choice in education so that all parents can get their children into good schools;
- A benefits system that ensures that work always pays more than welfare;
- An annual increase in the basic state pension;
- Hitting the 0.7% target for foreign aid so Britain can be a world leader in bringing relief to the hungriest and most vulnerable people on the planet.
On the reverse side of the card would be some simple talking points:
- Labour believe that you build a good society by spending more and more money on benefits;
- Libertarians believe that people have to look after themselves;
- Conservatives believe that the a person builds a good life with the help of strong families, good schools and paid work and that government can and should support parents, teachers and job creators.
A strong message on social mobility plus a guaranteed safety-net for all could be a winning combination for the Conservative Party.